At pubs, clubs and around workplace water-coolers, people have always hurled insults at those with whom they disagree. In the vast majority of cases, there were no consequences because the subject of the malice did not get to hear it. With social media, all that has changed. Some people relish the availability of a direct line to those they wish to castigate. Emboldening them further is a sense of anonymity and impunity. Abuse, obnoxiousness and prejudice of each and every kind have come out of the cupboard. Never has this downside of social media been more apparent than over the past week.
In Sydney, television presenter Charlotte Dawson was found dead in her apartment. She had been hospitalised in 2012 after campaigning against cyber-bullying. Among other things, Twitter trolls had told her to "stick your head in an oven" and "kill yourself". Closer to home, Herald sports columnist Dana Johannsen revealed that she had been bombarded with abuse from the same source after daring to question the attitude of some of the New Zealand competitors at the Winter Olympics.
Many of the responses were foul-mouthed. Appallingly, one that suggested Johannsen would be useful target practice once the writer received a gun licence was supported with the word "legend" by one of the country's Sochi athletes.
Social media has allowed the mean streak that has always permeated society to be amplified and targeted in the most cowardly of manners. An increasing number of people are complaining to the police that they are being bullied, harassed and threatened. The overwhelming impression is that social media have become a free-for-all arena.
The standard, and correct, response is for people not to become involved with online trolls, thereby denying them oxygen. But this is a fraught proposition because social media's upside, including connecting easily with friends and family, and entertaining and being entertained, has made it all-pervasive in the teenage world. Denying teenagers engagement would be far worse than the ultimate punishments of yesteryear such as withdrawing the keys to the family car.
Social media has allowed the mean streak that has always permeated society to be amplified and targeted in the most cowardly of manners.
The Government has stepped into this arena with the Harmful Digital Communications Bill, which is making its way through Parliament. To make it easier to tackle cyber-bullies, it includes an enforcement agency to deal with complaints, making it an offence to send or post harmful messages, and the creation of a new offence of inciting someone to commit suicide. Hopefully, this will address many of the more heinous examples of cyber-bullying. Absent from the legislation, however, is a gatekeeper or moderator along the lines of that controlling talkback radio or letters to the editor. Nor can it take into account the fact that the degree of abusiveness or obnoxiousness associated with a message lies in the mind of the recipient. Some people are vulnerable to even a one-off distasteful comment. Senders cannot be fully aware of the distress they may cause. Indeed, the psychopaths and sadists among them are all too ready to forget they are dealing with real people with real feelings. In that context, the degree of protection provided by the proposed law is problematic.
So, too, are appeals to trolls to act more responsibly and ethically. In reality, only so much can be done. Society's mean streak is not about to disappear and the social-media genie cannot be put back in the bottle.